Stigma is a “bitter” pill you don’t have to swallow

Bitter Medicine:  Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness (By Clem Martini and Oliver Martini, 2010)

Almost two years ago, a friend and co-worker dropped over while I was sitting at my desk and handed me this book. The timing could not have been more perfect because just an hour before that, I was sitting at a restaurant having lunch with my wife, talking about the frustration I was feeling in my mental health. Particularly, about the stigma associated with this disorder, the very force I felt was preventing me from moving forward with my longer-term plans of being a difference maker in this disorder (i.e. publishing, blogging, coaching, speaking).

But as I sat across the table from my wife, chewing on my chicken wrap, I admitted to her that I was afraid. I lacked confidence to move forward. In fact, I even admitted that I was nervous about talking to her about it. I realized that despite my efforts in healing, through therapy and writing, the reality was, I still never spoke publicly about my illness. Only a handful of people in my life knew. But my kids, immediate family, relatives, in-laws, co-workers, none of them knew. I came to terms with the truth: I was afraid to talk about it, depression. This was a bitter pill I knew I couldn’t swallow.

The book: barely an hour after returning to the office from my lunch date, this book fell into my hands. I opened it and as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. Bitter Medicine, a memoir told by the Martini brothers about experiences living with a family stricken with severe mental illness: a father described as having had “an inclination toward pessimism…remarkably like depression” and two brothers diagnosed with schizophrenia.

They speak to mental illness from an intimately personal perspective, and through countless disturbing examples, they expose inadequacies with the Canadian health care system, particularly its “laissez-fair” approach to treating mental health issues.

There was a point in the book that truly opened my eyes to this stigmatization I felt was holding me back. The authors challenge the reader to go on a “treasure hunt” at any local hospital and search for the psychiatric ward:

“Don’t be worried it takes a little time to find it. It’ll turn up eventually, secreted in some anonymous, out-of-the-way site.”

After reading this, and reflecting on my own experiences, I could draw the parallels that the authors relate to the stigmatic culture that even the health care system can seemingly foster.

It was early 2012 when I first reached out for help, when I called my doctor. At that time, I was in a very bad place, mentally. So much so that my doctor indicated after my assessment that he was sending my referral as high priority so I could begin treatment as soon as possible.

My first exposure to this stigmatic culture the authors spoke of was when a medical professional suggested to me that I seek treatment out of town so I wouldn’t worry about running into people I know. Certainly, he meant well, but this well-intentioned suggestion I now realize, opened my eyes about the perception of mental illness, even at the most professional level.

Another personal example speaks to the authors’ “treasure hunt” challenge: I drove to the hospital for my first appointment and learned that Mental Health and Addiction Services was located in behind the hospital. Indeed, the authors did say that it would be: “…secreted in some anonymous, out-of-the-way site.” Interestingly, the psychiatric ward in Charlottetown is located down the road from the hospital, on an “out-of-the-way” secluded lot.

Coincidence? Well, it depends on your perspective: Mental illness is for lack of a better term, misunderstood by just about every facet of society: by relatives, employers, public, health care practitioners, and especially, by victims themselves. But is there really anybody to blame? How can you possibly understand something you can’t see or touch? Unlike casting a broken leg, there’s no systematic approach to healing mental illness.

Prescribing anti-depressants, counselling, and so on, it’s all largely a shot in the dark in terms of nailing down effective treatment and healing methods. At least this was the impression I got from discussions with my psychiatrist. Why? Because unlike the human skeletal system, the anatomy of mental illness is inconsistent from one sufferer to another so I can appreciate the degree of unintentional ignorance associated with diagnosing and treating this disorder for the health care practitioner-especially for those who have never experienced severe mental illness.

Perspectives about mental illness differ from person to person. Its random, static. In the statistical world, one could say there is no trend, only white noise. I take it a step further and present the paradoxical tagline of mental illness: White Noise of Understanding! 

So, on one hand, we have an ailment that lacks a systematic basis of understanding. So how do we deal with it more effectively? How are we, the public, government and policy, health care professionals, victims/patients, relatives, etc., supposed to come to a consensus about it?

I believe there is a way. It either exists and has not yet been discovered or it does not exist and we have to find a way. Though I tend not to rely on cheezy references to Hollywood scripts, but my absolute favorite quote comes from A Beautiful Mind (2001) which to paraphrase, says: don’t focus on the problem, look through the problem and focus on the solution.

I believe that before we can find the solution, we first must believe there is a solution.